President’s Message – ‘Doing’ P2 Research ‘Together’

Bruce Gilbert, IAP2 President
Bruce Gilbert, IAP2 President

In my last President’s Message (August), I shared my view that P2 professionals need to be proficient at helping organizations better engage their publics, but also highly skilled at helping them to build effective collaborative structures and processes.  I opined that as professionals we need to be able to mentor, coach and support organizations to be effective and ‘smart’ partners given that inter-organizational collaboration is an important and high-order form of P2.  I concluded my Message by suggesting that IAP2 Canada (i.e., Board; Chapters; members; trainers) should consider the possibility of becoming more deeply engaged in ‘collaborative research’ on P2 themes.

What do I mean by ‘becoming more deeply engaged in ‘collaborative research’ on P2 themes’?

What I really mean to say is: let’s work together – and with our partners – to actually ‘do’ some research together on P2 questions, topics or themes of interest to us’ (i.e., knowledge creation).  The operative words for me are ‘together’ and ‘do’.

Yes we should definitely continue our good work to identify, inform ourselves about and share quality P2-related research products (e.g., journal articles; books; reports; case-studies; web-links) developed by others (i.e., knowledge dissemination/mobilization).

Certainly when appropriate and feasible we should continue to take steps to summarize select research products of others so as to make them more easily accessible to others (i.e., knowledge translation).

Most definitely, when resources allow of course, we should also consider retaining and commissioning outside experts to conduct P2-related research on our behalf.

But can’t we also ‘do’ some research ‘together’?

Isn’t IAP2 Canada an incredible repository of experience, knowledge and skill on ‘all things’ P2? Aren’t many of us, among other things, experienced in the art and science of research? Aren’t many of us also connected to experienced researchers, academic institutions and other non-profit entities who may want to work with us on some of our P2 questions and interests? Do we need to wait around for knowledge to be created by others or can we actually create some ourselves?

The answer I believe to all of the above questions is an unqualified ‘yes’.

What is collaborative community-based research (CCBR)?

The notion that non-academic entities can do research is of course not a new one. Non-profits, businesses, industry associations and governments have been ‘doing research’ for a long time. The idea that community agencies, grassroots groups, communities and even citizens working informally together can do research is also not that new, although most people would not likely equate research with such interests.

A number of terms have been coined over the last 5-6 decades to describe a type of research that is not necessarily based in or led by academic institutions (i.e., a type of applied research that is driven more by community interest and need than by academic goals and interests including intellectual curiosity). These terms include: participatory action research; action research; rural rapid appraisal; collaborative research; community-based research; community-university research; and community campus research.

It is beyond the scope of this Message to outline the differences and nuances between these various terms. Suffice to say that there is no ‘gold standard’ definition for any of them.  On the other hand, a number of elements or aspects appear common to most of these terms which for the purposes of this brief Message I am considering to be forms of ‘collaborative community-based research’ (CCBR). Some key aspects or elements that IAP2 types interested in ‘becoming more deeply engaged’ in research might want to consider are:

  • Community-situated: here, “community” can mean many things (not just geographic community); doing CCBR in an IAP2 context would mean ‘involving our own community’ (i.e., whomever is interested such as Chapters, trainers, members and/or partners), not just as possible research subjects, but as question-identifiers, project-designers, data collectors/analyzers, report-writers and results-sharers (Note: to the degree participants desire of course);
  • Rigorous and high-quality: just because an academic institution is not ‘leading or initiating’ a research project doesn’t mean that those involved need to abandon commonly-accepted and known research approaches, practices and protocols that can ensure rigorous and high-quality results; nonetheless, having an academic partner or research specialist involved as a collaborator on a CCBR project makes good sense as they can ensure projects are designed to a high standard;
  • Action-oriented: when CCBR is employed, it is usually because those involved want to change something (e.g., improve a program, process or policy; find a solution to a challenge or problem; identify trends so as to improve activities or change direction);
  • Collaborative: a typical CCBR project involves varied groups or interests (often from across multiple sectors if the theme or question under study is particularly complex) all of whom are interested in finding answers to an agreed upon question; CCBR projects often see academics, non-profit leaders, business champions and/or government officials ‘doing research’ together (e.g., sometimes as an informal body that guides those tasked with the actual ‘doing’; other times with their shirt sleeves rolled up digging deep into the ‘doing’);
  • Useful and practical: people and groups involved in this form of research usually want and expect that the results of their efforts will be useable and if applicable acted upon; they also understand that if those with the actual institutional power to take action on an issue are involved in the knowledge creation process, the likelihood that results will be used is greatly enhanced;
  • Mostly modest (scale, scope, cost, time): given many of the other aspects noted above such as the desire for action (e.g., community members trying to solve an urgent problem) and timeliness (e.g., government officials under pressure interested in determining the best course of action on a sensitive issue), many CCBR projects tend to be limited in scale and scope (e.g., they tend to focus on a well-defined question related to a clearly defined issue; they don’t tend to be long-term multi-part efforts that address large geographical areas although comparisons between different geographic areas via case-study research is certainly possible); related to this, many CCBR efforts are relatively inexpensive as well (i.e., because they tend to be of limited reach, they tend to be of modest duration and thus relatively inexpensive).

So if people within the IAP2 Canada family were interested in actually ‘doing’ research on a P2 theme or question, how would they start?

Firstly, they would need to establish that they have a question or interest-area related to P2 for which they do not have an answer/solid understanding (e.g., why do certain people attend public sessions in our region but not others (is it really a lack of babysitting services)? Why do some types of P2 activities appear more popular or successful than others? How can we better design P2 processes such that rural and remote communities’ in our region can better participate? What external factors tend to positively or negatively impact our P2 efforts and can anything be done about them?).

They would also need to ask themselves the question, ‘If we had answers to the question(s) we are considering, or if we had additional information related to our theme-of-interest, what would we do with this information and would it (likely) make any difference to anyone?

If the answer to the question above was ‘yes,’ then they would next need to gather together individuals or groups who may have an interest or a possible stake in the question/ topic and form a research-project mini-team. Its first real task would be to identify and refine a ‘researchable’ question (Note: this is where an experienced researcher can sometimes be very helpful).

Once a solid research question has been framed, the group would then develop a project-design that makes sense (e.g., its affordable; it can it be done in the time available; it employs sensible tools or instruments given the question/topic; it considers the benefits of and drawbacks associated with mixing tools and methods?). Decisions about who is collecting and analyzing data (i.e., team members? students? hired guns?), who is actually developing the insights, conclusions, generalizations and recommendations that will comprise the results, and who is going to mobilize the use of such findings, would need to be made.

So what and why bother?

The people within the IAP2 Canada family know a heck of a lot about P2. Many live and breathe it every day. Many are extremely well-read on the topic. Some are training others on a regular basis in this work. Many know enough about research tools, instruments, methods and designs to develop effective projects that can certainly shed light on and improve our practice.

IAP2 Canada as an entity, I believe, has a responsibility to mobilize knowledge about P2. This means using and mobilizing the work of others (which we do), occasionally commissioning special research work (which we do), but also generating and creating some of the work ourselves (I think we could do more). There are lots of academics willing to support IAP2-generated CCBR projects. There are a number of national and regional organizations and institutes likely willing to support or partner on smart initiatives including: Community-Based Research Canada; the Waterloo-based Center for Community Based Research; and the Edmonton-based Center for Public Involvement. There are also community sector and business partners in the community likely willing to participate. There are even potential funding sources such as Mitacs out there waiting for your/our call.

In closing, working collaboratively with our colleagues and partners to better understand P2 is a good way to build professional networks, improve our practice and grow both IAP2 Canada and the P2 movement in this country. Anyone can start a CCBR project – an individual, a Chapter or the IAP2 Board itself. As some of you may know, IAP2 Canada has a research committee led by the formidable former IAP2 Canada Board member Maria deBruijn. Among other things, the committee is exploring the broad question ‘where to with research in IAP2 Canada?’ It is also exploring the possibility of collaborative research work with IAP2 USA. In this regard, if you have ideas about P2 research you would like to share please make yourselves known to Maria or me – contact info@iap2canada.ca

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